School of Historical Studies

Ellsworth Kelly's Dream of Impersonality

By Yve-Alain Bois 

Ellsworth Kelly's Train Landscape (1952–53) refers to the colors of fields seen from a train. © Ellsworth Kelly

How things that look apparently very simple are in fact much more complex than they seem

Ellsworth Kelly is one of the very first artists whose work I liked. Perhaps he was second, just after Piet Mondrian. One of the things I asked Kelly after we finally met and became friends, close to a quarter of a century ago, was why he had not answered a fan letter that I had written to him in my teens. He remembered the letter. He had received it at a time when he felt isolated, bypassed by a new generation of artists, and he had been struck by the fact that it came from a French teenager living in the middle of nowhere—he thought he might even have kept it. Since Kelly is a demon archivist, he found the darn letter, and he gave me a copy of it, which, unlike him, I immediately misplaced. But I read it, and it was humbling. First, because I realized I had misdated it in my memory, placing it three years too early—probably because the main event it described, my first encounter with his works, at a show of his lithographs at the Galerie Adrien Maeght in Paris, dated from even earlier to 1965. Second, because it was sheer adolescent drivel. At the time of the letter, Kelly was for me the purest representative of pure abstraction, whatever that is supposed to be.

From a War on Terrorism to Global Security Law

by Kim Lane Scheppele 

What happened when the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1373 to fight terrorism but failed to define it?

On December 11, 2003, when asked in a press conference whether his Iraq policy was consistent with international law, President George W. Bush joked, “International law? I better call my lawyer; he didn’t bring that up to me.”

But, in fact, since the 9/11 attacks, the United States government had aggressively constructed a new body of international law: global security law. While the Bush administration is probably best known for its CIA black sites, extraordinary rendition, and defense of torture, those policies were in fact rather short-lived, lasting a handful of years at most. By contrast, global security law not only still exists but is becoming ever more entrenched. More than a decade after the attacks, global security law remains one of the most persistent legacies of 9/11.

On September 28, 2001, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1373. Operating under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which makes resolutions binding on all member states (noncompliance is at least theoretically subject to sanctions), the
Security Council required states to change their domestic law in parallel ways to fight terrorism. Previously, the Security Council had typically directed states’ actions or urged states to sign treaties, but it had not directed changes in countries’ domestic laws. With Resolution 1373, the Security Council required states to alter some of the most sensitive areas of national law, like criminal law and domestic intelligence law.

Painting Time: Impressionism and the Modern Temporal Order

By André Dombrowski 

Claude Monet’s La Grenouillère (1869) captures the “now” as a unit in time and the ever-changing experience of modernity. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

How quickening brushwork arose from the industrialization of time

It is often said that impressionism sought to make represented time and the time of representation coterminous. With its seemingly quick and unpolished touch, it gave the modern cultures of speed their first appropriately modernist forms. But art historians have rarely if ever interrogated the concrete histories and technologies of time (and time keeping) that underwrote this seismic stylistic shift or to inquire into the links between quickening brushwork and the nineteenth century’s industrialization of time. This is especially remarkable given the fact that two key scientific events in the measuring of modern time—the advent of quantifiable nervous reaction time in France around 1865 and the standardization of universal time in 1884—overlap so precisely with the history of impressionism, its rise in the mid-1860s, and the turn toward postimpressionism around the mid-1880s.

Understanding Networks and Defining Freedom

Gene regulatory networks are the source of many human diseases. How do we infer network structure from partial data? What is the network most likely to have produced the little bit that we can see?

From capturing interactions and inferring the structure of data to determining the infringement of freedom

In November, the Association of Members of the Institute for Advanced Study (AMIAS) sponsored two lectures by Jennifer Chayes, Member (1994–95, 97) in the School of Mathematics, and Quentin Skinner, Member in the Schools of Historical Studies (1974–75) and Social Science (1976–79). All current and former Institute Members and Visitors are members of AMIAS, which includes some 6,000 scholars in more than fifty countries. To learn more about the organization, upcoming events, and opportunities to support the mission of the Institute, please visit Following are brief summaries of the lectures by Chayes and Skinner; full videos are available at and


Jennifer Chayes, Distinguished Scientist and Managing Director of Microsoft Research New England and New York City:

Everywhere we turn, networks can be used to describe relevant interactions. In the high-tech world, we see the internet, the world wide web, mobile phone networks, and online social networks. In economics, we are increasingly experiencing both the positive and negative effects of a globally networked economy. In epidemiology, we find disease spreading over ever-growing social networks, complicated by mutation of the disease agents. In problems of world health, distribution of limited resources, such as water resources, quickly becomes a problem of finding the optimal network for resource allocation. In biomedical research, we are beginning to understand the structure of gene-regulatory networks, with the prospect of using this knowledge to manage many human diseases.  

The Utility of Literary Study

By Nigel Smith 

For Bacon, literary creativity and scientific inventiveness both arise from the mental facility capable of finding truth. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

I should admit at the outset to a guilty conscience. I should have been a physicist (it was my best subject), but around the age of fifteen was converted to the humanities by an enthusiastic English teacher who had been a professional actor. Plato’s suspicion of the artist survives in me somewhere. When I went to university to read English and history, I thought studying literature would help me be a better person, that it would lead to some kind of moral and ethical wisdom, and that may finally be true, but not in any straightforward or obvious way. It did at least keep me out of harm’s way by making the library the place I most wanted to be, reading books.

Since at least the eighteenth century, our sense of literature, when compared with science, has been characterized at a certain aesthetic extreme. Oscar Wilde’s much quoted statement in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of its best versions: “All art is quite useless.” To be literature, a work of literary creativity must dissociate itself from that which is useful. In this sense, utility and artistic value must be sepa­ra­ted, like Immanuel Kant’s “purposeful purposelessness.”

Yet even with these arguments in mind, we live with the inescapability of literature, and that its greatest examples elicit enthusiastic admiration and, in the reading, great pleasure. One typical lunchtime conversation in my year at IAS was concerned with the significance of Giovanni Boccaccio, drawing in a classical philosopher, an ancient historian, and a literary critic. Another was on the considerable influence of Cornelius Tacitus as a writer. In nearly every Monday lunchtime talk in the School of Historical Studies during the past academic year, the issue of the function of metaphor—one of the most central literary issues— surfaced. The case has recently been made that Kant derived an important part of his philosophy from an encounter with some of John Milton’s lyrics, triggering effectively a revolution in the philosophy of mind.1